Qarabag – OM: Between versatility and loss of bearings, what are the effects of Jorge Sampaoli’s changes?

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With the advent of phase-based systems, the distinction between on-ball and off-ball moments is increasingly common. It is even more so in France since Jorge Sampaoli put his suitcases and his dumbbells on the Canebière. The Argentine coach starts from the idea that you have to defend with a line of four and lighten the rear guard to attack in number, but the way his formation deforms is difficult to understand. In perpetual motion, Marseille sometimes gives the impression that no player is at his post and changes so much from one week to another that it is difficult to know if his coach is still looking or if, for him, the solution is in experimentation. Should a team be changed even when it wins?

A sham victory?

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The beginning of the (last) great misunderstanding dates from February 4th. That day, OM easily beat Angers (5-2) in one of the most enjoyable matches of the season. Jorge Sampaoli, who uses Arkadiusz Milik sparingly, offers him an eighth tenure in L1 in a two-forward system used for the first time. Aligned with rookie Cédric Bakambu, in what is presented as a 4-4-2 diamond, the Pole offers himself a hat-trick.

This system will not return thereafter, without the results (defeats against Clermont and Nice) and the manner (sluggish victories against Metz and Qarabag) seeming to justify this abandonment. So, of course, a question arises: why? Why not build on a clear victory and, more importantly perhaps, on the best performance of a player cut to evolve at the higher level?

The answer probably lies in the way this meeting unfolded. In the identity of the adversary, first. A player SCO, throwing on the ground and defending with a high line leaving spaces behind his back. In the script, then. Led 2-0, OM conceded several very dangerous situations, whether they ended in a shot, like the failed face-to-face by Azzedine Ounahi, or not, like this 2 against 3 badly exploited by the opponent.

Arkadiusz Milik, author of a hat-trick against Angers

Credit: Getty Images

He also scored on phases with a low success rate: long shot from Gerson, Milik’s header into the empty goal after a completely failed outing from Danijel Petkovic, Cengiz Ünder’s half-volley outside the box… but also an incredible cross from the Turkish for Milik, whom even Ronaldinho has not often succeeded in this position. Without being 6-0 against Troyes for Michel’s debut on the bench in 2015, where everything had gone, the result flattered a perfectible performance.

Crazier on the bench than in his game plans, Sampaoli takes refuge in control when the matches escape him. During his season at Sevilla FC, the 6-4 victory on the first day was followed by the addition of a defender and a 0-0 a week later. This season, the defeat against Lens (2-3) in September began a shift towards more cautious possession, significantly slowing down the tempo of matches, and therefore the number of chances and the risk of losing if the opponent is realistic.

A calculation made by most of the big teams, which have the technical quality to keep the ball, with one detail: risk taking. Which, often minimal, was particularly great against Angers, with in particular a large number of 1 against 1 to play behind. Too much, no doubt, in the eyes of the Argentinian.

Zone changes

If the misunderstanding lies above all in the offensive animation, not the most suitable for a club whose slogan is “Straight to the goal”, the question of the system arises first on the other side of the field. Against Angers, the diamond was in fact a 5-3-2 in the defensive phase, Boubacar Kamara moving into central defense. In Metz, Marseille defended in a 5-4-1, with Kamara again lower and, this time, the only Dimitri Payet on the front line. Against Clermont finally, the team was in 4-3-3, with players occupying their usual position.

Three days of championship, three approaches and as many landmarks to find. Especially since the phase without the ball is traditionally more rigid: where offensive permutations help to disturb the opponent, it takes habits to defend well. And it’s not just a detail. With only 52% possession in Metz and several weak times against Clermont, Marseille had to defend as a unit and know how to recover the ball out of the pressing sequences. In this area, the eleven is clearly perfectible.

Dimitri Payet, the dark look, after the defeat of OM against Clermont

Credit: Imago

Attack sequences are much more difficult to grasp. On the one hand, there is always the desire to have four or even five players glued to the opposing defense: one on each wing, one in each half-space (zone between the lateral and the central) and, in sequence, a fixing point in the axis. The fact of playing with two professional attackers or without a number 9 does not change much in the occupation of the zones, and a priori very different systems ultimately lead to what could be described as 3-3-4.

Limpid presented like that, the picture is less so when one is interested in men. Because, unlike the other teams who are slowly settling into the opposing camp with the aim of not moving, Marseille swaps all the time. Moves that are more reminiscent of Ajax seventies than Bayern, with surprising snapshots.

A few seconds apart, we can for example see Mattéo Guendouzi move from the right half-space, an attacking position ready to make a cross call towards the penalty spot, to the left-back area. Displacements which are always compensated, the game plan assuming that each lane of play is occupied, and therefore lead to other relocations. What give the impression of a well-oiled machine, but what also create new situations when an element is far from its preferential zone.

Where Johan Cruyff, like Alfredo Di Stefano at Real before him, knew the needs of each position and could occupy it for the duration of a streak, the Marseillais are still learning – and have little chance of ever reaching this extreme level of understanding of the game. Doing what the system asks for may cause further problems.

The learning of creativity

It is in this discrepancy between the intrinsic qualities of men and those required at the very highest level that the main problem lies. Every week, shifts are not exploited because of bad individual choices. On Sunday, Clermont was late several times when it came to sliding, but the structural advantage was almost systematically lost when the decision was made.

Pol Lirola, excellent at overflowing with space on the side and centering, made passages in the famous right half-space where Guendouzi regularly evolves. Even with time and space to make a difference, his body orientation and information intake pushed him to play it safe. Some of his partners begin to take reflexes but, constantly changing position, they do not develop playing habits.

Matteo Guendouzi (Marseille)

Credit: Imago

And that is perhaps the biggest concern of a team that is much more frustrating than its ranking. Certain esoteric tactical choices of the coach are legitimized by the roles to be played. Gerson, past side or left axial defender against the Clermontois, had to create the first shift in the opposing camp more than he had to protect his goal, and his zone of activity was very similar to that of the middle he has always been. But this logic, aimed at creating danger, is very rare. In Marseille, today there are more workers who are asked to create than creative people who are asked to defend.

If the caution in possession is undeniable, it largely depends on the profiles. The lack of offensive reflexes from runners transformed into attackers – where City aligns Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva in these roles of “false 8” – and calls when neither Bakambu nor Bamba Dieng are on the field. Changing systems regularly only delays the creation of complementarities and potentially disrupts defensive habits. The ability to weave a spider’s web in the opposing camp is impressive and sometimes there are real finds. There remains the impression that the productions are rarely up to the ambitions and that the best player is a sniper without bullets.

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